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Damian Barr's Literary Salon: Polly Samson, Jonathan Lee, and David Gilmour

by Ed Lopez-Reyes for Brain Damage

This month, on April 9th, New York City's Ace Hotel was fortunate enough to host one of a handful of recent conversations with David Gilmour and Polly Samson, ahead of Gilmour’s sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden.

Over the years, Polly Samson and David Gilmour’s artistic marriage has been received by many with a certain degree of ambiguity – maybe even agnosticism given the obscurity of writing credits on albums (to the extent they are noticed in the age of iTunes) and the relative privacy Samson and Gilmour seem (somewhat impractically) partial to.

The event at New York City’s Ace Hotel, one of only a handful of programs like it in recent months, presented a unique opportunity to shed light on this partnership in significant depth. In fact, an event that could have been mistakenly dismissed as an addendum to a very tight Gilmour touring schedule turned out to be a pivotal dialog that contextualized the magnitude of Samson’s influence on the guitarist and underscored its paramount role in sustaining his creative drive. It provided insight into the artistic plane Gilmour inhabits these days and provided perspective of the world that Samson and Gilmour share with many contemporaries: a world that is, frankly, somewhat alien to those that are principally if not exclusively attached to Pink Floyd’s Gilmour and in which Gilmour’s music can be derivative of experiences and daily occurrences far removed from the elements the shaped the 50 year old band.

Samson played a recognizable role in Gilmour’s Pink Floyd: she shared writing credits on The Division Bell. But the weight of her partnership with Gilmour boasts a centre of gravity in his solo work (since 2006) in tandem with her own writing, which has continued to flourish at a scale that many Pink Floyd and Gilmour followers are still unfamiliar with. The event at the Ace Hotel crystallized this and framed this reality, which does a great deal to explain the scarcity of live Gilmour performances and the diminished scale the guitarist opts for: much of it rooted in the lifestyle the couple has opted for and the priorities that concern them.

On the one hand, the exclusivity of the sold-out event (there must have been about 100 people there – including the authors, Gilmour, friends, relatives, and members of their respective staffs) made it quite a historic treat; on the other hand the limited space also meant many answers or insightful anecdotes will remain first-hand knowledge to a relative few. That said, many of the Gilmour admirers that were present may have been so awestruck at the opportunity to sit in such an intimate gathering with Gilmour that much of the substance of the discussion may have been lost in the process or even in the nuances of cultural differences (from terminology to political perspective – but more on that later).

The event’s host, author Damian Barr, may be the reason the conversation proved insightful and captivating. Evidently, Barr is someone who has pierced through Gilmour and Samson’s personal circles to a degree that facilitates a dialog of unusual depth. After Samson read two parts from her most recent book, The Kindness, she discussed her evolution from an author of short stories to novelist, the contrast in how these are received in each the United Kingdom and the United States, and how her ideas come together into the full thread that becomes the final written product.

Gilmour’s presence at the event was a draw: but a good amount of people there were keen on Samson’s work regardless. So it was interesting to see how the dialog with the twain developed in the portion that had been reserved for Samson and the evening’s “special guest” (Gilmour).

The artistic synergy between Samson and Gilmour has defined each other’s work on a scale few are familiar with. More importantly, as life experiences have grown common to both they have amplified each other’s impact on one another while at the same time nurturing more pronounced and distinct personalities in their own intellectual spaces.

It was particularly visceral hearing both discuss the challenges they dealt with during the period in which their son, Charlie Gilmour, was afflicted by legal entanglements following a protest in which he swung from a Union Jack on the Cenotaph. This may have been the single most important catalyst in the series of thoughts and introspections that inspired a great deal of their recent works, much of it drawing from the well of ideas represented in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The tone of this conversation was profoundly intimate and personal – and quite unusual in hue for those who have watched interviews with Samson and Gilmour over the years.

Of course, some things may be lost in translation: on more than one occasion expressions or particular references of distinctly British stock were clarified by Barr, Samson, and Gilmour. But it begged the question of how much needed to be translated for them, particularly in the space of political sensitivities: the smallest reference (even in passing and in jest) to someone like Prime Minister David Cameron will lack the same receptivity this side of the pond based on two particular cultural angles: poor familiarity with the political character or (ironically) enough familiarity with him to amuse American conservatives and liberals that may recognize Cameron as far more similar to a moderate Democrat or moderate Republican in the American political landscape. In the United States, Cameron would be a reasonable consensus politician, not the type of figure conventional hipness begs to cast as polarizing. Whatever conclusions can be drawn about American or British politics based on this reality is up to the reader (and probably filtered accordingly, of course).

This brings us to one of the more interesting points of the evening, which actually came from author Jonathan Lee’s presentation: after reading from his book High Dive (a brutally visceral reading that probably left most in the audience with clammy hands and a touch of vertigo) Lee entertained a couple of questions that titillated an appetite for more earnest political dialog.

High Drive is the story of a number of characters’ experiences leading up to the 1984 bombing of The Grand Hotel in Brighton, a city that, in some measure or another, happens to be at the centre of the creative minds imparting dialog this evening (Gilmour, Samson, and Barr are residents; Lee visited regularly as a child). This may have given the audience a sense of how much had been imported from Brighton (intellectually speaking) into this small New York City hotel this evening; it also gave the audience a sense of the importance Brighton plays in each of the artistic efforts being analysed. But, more importantly, it led Lee to an interesting discussion about Margaret Thatcher (the target of the bombing) that may have brought an already attentive audience to the edge of their seats (or at least that segment familiar enough with British politics), wondering whether Lee’s writing and his research led to some level of empathy or sympathy – or even a type of respect – for Thatcher that would have felt uncomfortably out of place if elaborated upon in this milieu. Necessary curfews may have been the greater culprits in the brevity afforded that potential discussion. If anything, it should compel the audience to study Lee and his work in greater depth and that should be, (precisely), the point of these literary discussions.

Without doubt, the moment that pulled the audience together was the tangible demonstration of how the collaborative process of writing music between Gilmour and Samson unfolds: Gilmour gave the audience a rare glimpse of that process by playing demos of In Any Tongue and A Boat Lies Waiting right off his personal iPhone, each in what he calls their “scat” form (practically completed music sprinkled with random but melodious vocalizations), which Samson’s touch translates into the lyrical narratives that have fleshed out tracks into the compelling pieces we hear in Gilmour’s recent solo albums.

Overall, this was a thought-provoking, eye-opening event that taught the audience a great deal about Samson, Lee, and even Barr – not to mention the role the Samson-Gilmour partnership plays in the music and literature they each produce. The audience also learned a bit about Brighton – even if indirectly.

The only two spaces that may have left those in the audience with an appetite for a bit more were Lee’s discussion about Thatcher and the political environment of that time as well as the difficulties that became apparent in the time allotted to meet the authors and Gilmour. Miscommunication about what (or how much) could be signed by the artists, combined with a bit of prodding along a queue that infantilized the audience in some degree, took the intellectual calibre of the event down a notch.

To be fair, the small mobbing Gilmour endured during intermission, despite the fact that a signing was already scheduled after presentations, teed things up for some of the tensions that followed. But with such a small amount of people there and such a rich presentation, the signing (books and otherwise) and photo opportunities could have been more in line with the evening’s sophisticated flavour. In a sense that was a lost opportunity for some, in some unfortunate instances even confrontational, and probably a bit much to expect from people who had travelled from (and performed in) a show in Chicago less than 24 hours before. The presentations may have planted seeds for great questions and dialog with the authors and the “special guest” musician – but the execution of that part of the event disintegrated in some measure into a something more reminiscent of a backstage autograph hunt.

Sometimes these experiences are co-created rather than unilaterally accounted for.

Other than those two minor challenges (the former being more reasonable and in line with the program than the other), this was one heck of an informative and sophisticated event. Seeing as the event was rare (and great) as it was, it may also be best to take what we can get as an audience for now.

For more information and recordings of Damian Barr’s Literary Salon in Podcast format, please visit this link. For additional information about Polly Samson, please visit her website here. For additional information about Jonathan Lee, please visit his website here. Photography courtesy of Elizabeth Anne Hellings and Ed Lopez-Reyes.



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